When I was a young professor at Oberlin College, that liberal oasis in northeastern Ohio, a senior professor of religion came into my modest office, past the larger-than-life size poster of Lenin on the door, and asked me, “Is it true that you are a Marxist?” In those days, confident in my radicalism, I assured him I was. “How quaint!” he said. “You know,” he continued, “you on the Left believe in the goodness of man and therefore are always disappointed, while we who believe in Original Sin expect the worst and are never disappointed by what happens.”
For the Left, in so far as a Left actually exists in the United States, and for liberals as well, certainly the next few decades were ones of disappointment, even disenchantment. The last spasm of hope for many of us came with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the ex-Soviet Union, who led an experiment in radical reform from above, but that ended only too quickly in the catastrophic collapse, not only of Soviet Communism, but of any real “third way” alternatives to the triumph of neoliberal economics and eventually neoconservative politics.
The end of Communism and the Soviet empire in East Central Europe appeared to confirm the perversity of Marxism as political practice and as a view of history. The principal critical analysis of capitalism and imperialism, the major opponent of Western capitalism in both Western socialist parties and in Soviet support of national liberation movements and Communist parties, Marxism was swept from the field, driven underground. Or at least driven into the academy, the universities, where it is occasionally taught to freshmen. In the absence of significant secular revolutionary or reformist alternatives to the “new world order” of Western capitalism and democracy, unanticipated new forces, much more conservative and religious, appeared, first in Iran in the revolution of the ayatollahs in 1979, in the Muslim Brotherhood movements in Egypt and elsewhere, in the mujaheddin resistance to the radical Islamic movements of the present. A Green Menace replaced the Red!
People still ask me, on occasion, “Are you a Marxist?” My answer now is different. “We’re not allowed to tell.”
When the Soviet Union set itself up as the guardian of the faith, Marxism and socialism were identified by liberals, conservatives, and Stalinists alike as being consonant with the practices and achievements of the USSR. Stalin defanged Marx, eliminated the critical power of Marxism and turned it into a legitimizing ideology. Russia was conceivably the worst place to attempt to build the kind of socialism that Marx envisioned coming after capitalism had exhausted all its potential. This is
a country that is still today trying to get capitalism right. Actually, many historians claim, this is a country that could not get feudalism right. My own sense is that Marx would have been the most fervent critic, from the Left, of the disempowering of the working class and the exploitative character of the Soviet regime, as were many Western and Soviet Marxists of the time. He would have been appalled at Marxism becoming a religion dressed in scientific drag.
In my view, what is most important in Marx are his questions, critiques, his values and his moral vision – all part of a legacy that remains a powerful specter that still haunts global capitalism and (what Marxists call) bourgeois democracy at the beginning of the 21st century. Those values continue to inspire people in many parts of the world who without them would be even more disempowered before the onslaught of global capitalism and American hegemony.
For Marx, history did not end with capitalism. He did not legitimize the present as the best of all possible worlds, even as he appreciated the power and productivity of capitalism. Socialists aimed to subvert and supercede bourgeois society in the interest of a more egalitarian, socially just and democratic form of society. This vision certainly contains within it a utopia, as does any politics except conservative acceptance of the way the world exists at the moment. That utopia – that different and better future which the overwhelming one-dimensionality of current political imagination makes appear ridiculous, retains enormous power as an immanent critique of the limits, mystifications, apologetics, and deceptions of bourgeois democracy and market capitalism. Utopia, in other words, might be thought of, not in the usual sense of an impossible dream, but rather a far off goal toward which one directs one’s politics, even if the ultimate goal might not be reached. My personal goal, for instance, might be perfect health and immortality; even though I know neither is possible, that does not stop me from going to the gym for a workout.
Socialism was, and remains, an alternative imaginary modernity and not an alternative to modernity. It might be thought of today as a classic “empty signifier,” a concept without specific content, the content to be filled by actual practices within the ongoing movement of history. From its origins, socialism has been a movement with the goal of extending the power of ordinary people, that is, of extending as far as possible the limits of democracy – not only in the realm of politics (which was the goal of democratic radicals and left liberals), but also in the economy as well. Because the power implicit in property and wealth, they believe, would inevitably distort and corrupt the democratic political sphere, socialists have searched for mechanisms of social control over or social ownership of the means of production. In addition, socialism – in contrast to liberalism but closer to some forms of conservatism, religion and nationalism – seeks a restoration of social solidarity fractured by the individualizing effects of competitive market relations. That remains their utopia, a telos for their politics.
Marx presents a radical critique of the injustices that derive from private property in the means of production, and the power such possession implies over all kinds of economic and political decisions. He argues in favor of establishing real democracy in place of bourgeois democracy, which Marx from his earliest writing understood to be a colossal fraud. Great wealth and property when unchecked by countervailing institutions, their power justified by the dominant discourses, inevitably distort democratic choices. If one imagined a perfect bourgeois democracy, it would be one in which the rich could influence elections by spending large sums of money, buy private media and use it to create or limit popular opinion; where the wealthier members of society had easier access to courts and lawyers than poor people, and money spent in elections would be equated with freedom of speech. Such a perfect bourgeois democracy, of course, would be viewed by its pundits and preachers not as serving only the rich and powerful but by the talking classes as well as the bulk of the population as working in the interests of the whole people for the common good.
What Marx’s message has lost, at least for the time being, is the means to make the changes that its system of values and preferences would maintain is so necessary for human well-being and, increasingly, survival. There is no proletariat anymore, at least not in the sense of a unified historical subject; there is no coherent material force positioned as the gravedigger of and alternative to capitalism. That modernist belief in a unified, conscious class that embodies progress has had to give way to a greater appreciation of the scattered, disjointed elements of dissent and refusal – working people, the Latin American Left, environmentalists, those who struggle for their identity and dignity and engage in a day-by-day struggle which often fails to constrain the seemingly inevitable expansion of global capitalism.
At its best moments, from its origins to its present dismal state, the struggle for socialism has been fundamentally about a struggle for democracy – the extension of empowerment to the greatest number of people. The commitment to democracy, however, was repeatedly compromised by political expediencies, the imperatives of gaining and holding state power, and the usurpation of socialism’s aspirations by self-serving politicians. Yet democracy, greater social justice, the promotion of equality and popular control over the economic as well as the political sphere remain the program of those who would take Marx seriously and on his own terms.
Democracy, however, as Americans must now be most acutely aware, does not come easily and cannot be exported on the tips of bayonets. Its gains even in the most stable of polities can be easily reversed. The United States, simultaneously one of the most progressive and the most reactionary countries on the globe, bestrides the world like a colossus that stands in the way of any movement or idea that would curb its dominance, and for the current administration (those I refer to as the Busheviks), that dominance entails the freest of free market economics and the greatest freedom for the U.S. to have its way in the world.
So what is left of Marxism? It is still about expanding democracy, which is still so fragile in much of the world. The utopian aspect of thinking beyond the present – for all of the dangers associated with attempting to impose utopias – at least arms us with a way to think critically about what needs to be changed. Marx makes us think about alternatives, even when his own theory fails any longer to give us either a clear vision of that alternative or a means to achieve it. Granted, this might not be enough, especially for pragmatic Americans. Without vision though, politics circles endlessly around its present conceptions.
In the absence at the moment of a material force to assist us in a progressive direction, Marx’s historicity helps us out: change happens, perhaps not in determined, predictable ways as he might have thought. But it happens, and humans still make their own history even if not under circumstances chosen by themselves. But to make history, you had better know history, and the world. That is where scholars come in – not just as closeted observers but as interpreters, explainers – and in their noble, necessary work of critique and analysis, they contribute to those exalted goals of Marx himself, enlightenment and emancipation.
– Ronald Suny is the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History at the University. He has written several books on the history of the Soviet Union.